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From Homesick to Home

The challenge of being away from home and how to overcome it.

Because of COVID-19, there are those who can barely leave their homes and those who can’t return to them. IMAGE BY ADEN MICHAEL MANALO
Tis the season to be jolly—and that’s exactly why a number of people are feeling blue.

The holidays are here, after all, and according to psychologist Zenia Panahon, people often look forward to them for a variety of reasons. This is one of them: “Christmas time is family time,” she said, “as is the normal tradition of the Filipino.” For those who are away from home, this is usually the time to return, a much-anticipated sojourn to the familiar. There is, of course, a problem: the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19,) the impediment to the familiar, the principal author of the so-called “new normal.”

Since it began traveling from Wuhan, China, COVID-19 has been forcing people to stay where they are. Reports say that it originated late last year and since then, it’s been plaguing the globe with a host of socio-economic difficulties caused by its high infection rate and its lethality. In various parts of the world, government leaders continue their attempts to curb its spread and, as a result, conditional travel restrictions and limiting health protocols remain in place.

It’s a situation that many in the Philippines are familiar with. Here, the business of traveling from one province to the next can be met with a variety of inconveniences, discouraging year-end journeys among other things. And, as a result, we now have a surplus of people who fall into one of two categories: those who are either sick of staying at home or those who are definitively homesick.

“Homesickness is the feeling of wanting to be somewhere or be with someone that gives comfort and familiarity,” Panahon said. “[It] is similar to the feeling of grief in the sense that the desire to experience traditional culture, people or place are unfulfilled.  This loss of time to reconnect can lead to feelings of loneliness, sadness, even an inability to enjoy life.”

Supporting her definition is Mache Torres Ackerman, a woman whose many pursuits afford her the mantle of a life coach. According to Ackerman, homesickness is deeply connected to one’s inability to be in their comfort zones and this, in turn, can lead to anxiety or depression—two conditions that are dangerous if left unaddressed.

“The worst effects that may happen is when the person does impulsive decisions due to severe state of depression or loneliness, which may even lead to suicidal thoughts,” she said. “Another effect is when he or she seeks physical love or attention that may create unhealthy dependency on others.”

As a travel writer, I’m no stranger to this subject. I’ve had the privilege of visiting locations that many have likened to “heaven” and yet, in a number of them, I’ve found myself longing for Metro Manila—a place that many have likened to “hell.” It is home, for better or worse. It was where I was born and raised. I’ve grown accustomed to its defining realities: from the buildings that block sunsets, to the traffic that can compel commuters to walk, to the urban density that has–on numerous occasions–seen me getting an elbow square on the face. The sensations of this region have relentlessly assaulted me growing up and, since I’m still alive, I reckon that I’ve associated them with my continued existence. Imagine life as a corridor. If so, they’re like the pillars of a still seemingly endless path I’m currently treading. So, to perceive them is to have an assuring suggestion of what may come next (which is essentially just more time in this world.) Perhaps that’s why I need them; perhaps that’s why in their long absence, I’d find myself distracted, unsure, and even woeful.

Therein lies an important truth about homesickness: it’s not always caused by one’s distance from a place but rather one’s distance from the sensations that make that place feel like home. But there are other truths about this source of anxiety. For one: the fact there are ways to keep it at bay.

Like many problems confronting the mind, one can begin responding to homesickness by acknowledging its existence and accepting it as a normal response to reality.

“It’s OK to feel the homesickness,” Panahon said. “Delineate time to sit with your emotions.  The more you feel them, the quicker they go away.” To speed up their retreat, however, one can try to address the problem directly through various means.

Keep in touch with people from home,” Panahon stated. “There are many opportunities to connect with each other via email, phone, and/or Zoom calls.” This comes with a warning, however: one mustn’t overdo it. This is the belief of Save The Student, a resource website for the learning demographic. According to James Butler, the writer of the article on this subject, the trick is to not let it get to the point where you’re talking to people back home more than you talk to the people you’re currently with. A supporter of this is THE Student, a website that occasionally publishes material for people studying abroad. In an article written by Seeta Bhardwa, the site mentions that there should be a balance between contacting home and avoiding it. “If you try to stop yourself from calling home altogether,” Bhardwa wrote, “you will only miss them even more. Start by calling or texting every other day in the beginning and then it will slowly decrease as you begin to get busier.”

This of course leads to another tip: keep yourself busy. According to both Panahon and Ackerman, engaging activities that lean towards enjoyment or self-improvement may provide some protection from homesickness.

I can personally attest to this. Looking back at my travel assignments, the ones that left me feeling less homesick were the ones that had stacked itineraries often involving much physical exertion. Recalling this reminded me of a conversation I had with Dr. Grace Brillantes-Evangelista, a psychologist I interviewed years ago due to her art-related psychotherapy. According to Evanglista, physical activity can help in changing one’s thought patterns for the better.

“When you do physical activities,” she said, “it releases endorphins and the tension of the body.” She also added that it gives individuals a sense of accomplishment that aids in one’s attempts to subdue depressive thoughts. “Sometimes when you have depression,” she shared, “you think that everything is a failure. But when you tend to have physical activities and you’re accomplishing even the small things, that adds to a counter schema or a counter story that says not everything you do is a failure.”

In line with that, one should know that they can benefit from starting personal projects. Experts from various fields believe that this is one of the reasons why gardening has become a popular endeavor throughout this health crisis. In an article posted on MarketWatch, Rutgers University professor Joel Flagler said that there are certain, stabilizing forces in gardening that help ground people when they feel terrified and uncertain. “It’s these predictable outcomes, predictable rhythms of the garden that are very comforting right now,” he said. That explains the rise of the plantitos and plantitas.

Of course, there is also another personal project one can undertake and it’s directly related to homesickness. According to the Counseling and Psychology Services of the University of Kansas, doing things that make your current location feel more like a home may help in dealing with the distress that hits when you’re away from home. This includes going out of your comfort zone, developing new friendships and routines to ease yourself into your current surroundings. The website also stated that self-introspection while doing this is necessary.

“At times, a little self-analysis is in order,” it said. “Note if there is a special time of the day or week that is particularly difficult and try to figure out why. Try to develop a routine of your own for days that go slowly such as having a leisurely breakfast, reading the newspaper, or visiting with a friend.”  

All things considered, both Panahon and Ackerman believe that engaging in such activities can be beneficial to one’s well-being when faced with the potential of homesickness.

It is important to focus on the positive,” Ackerman concluded. And in another email, Panahon highlighted one of them. “This may be the time to work on that one project you have been meaning to do but have not had the time for,” so she mentioned. “Engage in other activities that you enjoy. Take advantage of your free time and make sure to enjoy yourself.

The current state of the world shows that the latter can be a challenge. I can relate to this simply by looking back at my experiences as a professional traveler: the occasional loneliness of it; the feeling of displacement, unfamiliarity, and the dread or sheer inconvenience of having to face the unknown. Of course, my past journeys are nothing compared to the immobility of the present. My difficulties back then do not even come close to the challenges we face now. But I did realize something in those years that still applies to this day: temporariness. This is something that people can forget when they’re stuck in one place, experiencing the same sensations over and over again. That’s partly how we develop a sense of home which is why it can also be a fitting remedy for those who are missing home.

There is a virtue in understanding that change is constant. Seasons—like journeys—end. And by choosing to see them through, you refuse to forfeit the chance to return home or eventually feel at home.

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